There is an ongoing debate amongst the mobile operators, the mobile industry associations, the regulator, and the government on whether we need to continue with 2G mobile services, the costs and benefits of the same, the need for 2G refurbished equipment to be imported and whether 2G should be discontinued in the country in lieu of 3G/4G.

The incumbents are of the view that the 2G mobile subscriber base in the country is still quite large and that these subscribers still use 2G feature phones (the likes of Nokia 1100, the once ubiquitous sturdy device) and hence are not ready to latch on to 4G network services. On the other hand, the new entrant who established 4G network services as a greenfield project feels that the legacy era of 2G services in India shall end and the operators should migrate to 4G.

While both the parties have valid arguments, our research on the crowd sourced data set collected through TRAI’s “MySpeed” application throws some light on this issue. We observe that the average downlink speed in a 4G network varies about 2 to 4 times that of 3G. According to the International Telecommunications Union Radio Communication Sector (ITU-R), 4G technologies provide a downlink access speed up to 1 Gbps, which is 10 times more than that offered by 3G systems.

By migrating from 3G to 4G, the median data download speeds can be increased by as much as 6 Mbps. But are there additional advantages to deploying 4G networks?

Fragmented spectrum

Most of the Indian operators have spectrum holding that are fragmented and dispersed across various spectrum bands — 800, 900, 1800, 2100, 2300, and 2600 MHz. While 2G deployments are mostly in 900 and 1800 MHz bands, 4G networks and devices operate across all these band, both in Frequency Division Duplexing (FDD) and Time Division Duplexing (TDD) modes.

Hence the operators will be able to optimally use their spectrum holdings in 4G networks, much better than in 2G/3G networks. Further with LTE Advanced, the operators will be able to use carrier aggregation to aggregate fragmented spectrum across spectrum bands to increase efficient use of scarce radio spectrum at the same time providing improved quality of service.

The pandemic has changed the landscape of education, work and our social lives. There is an urgent need for increased speeds and capacity of our mobile networks for good quality of experience to enable users to participate in the digital life that has become the new normal due to the pandemic. Especially so when our landline broadband penetration is miniscule at about 20 million. The average downlink mobile data speed in India is about 11 Mbps, while the world average is about 30 Mbps.

According to the National Digital Communications Policy 2018 (NDCP 2018), that every 10 per cent increase in broadband speeds lead to about 1 per cent or more increase in GDP. NDCP 2018 also says that the goal is to provide universal broadband at speeds of 50 Mbps to every citizen by 2022. This indicates an appreciable gap between the policy goals and the ground realities.

According to TRAI, there are about 700 million mobile broadband subscribers in the country, though definition of broadband in India is still very outdated at a minimum downlink speed of 512 Kbps. As per the vision of NDCP 2018, we need to increase this by as much as 100 times.

Hence it would benefit society if mobile operators migrate to 4G as soon as possible. It cannot happen overnight as there are still existing 2G subscribers of about 50 million in the country. Operators concerned about the high prices of 4G handsets can opt for bundling handsets and services through a contractual service fees. The other option is for the government to subsidise purchase of 4G handsets by low-income people through Direct Benefit Transfer. The subsidy can be borne out of the Universal Service Obligation Fund.

The future of work in most job categories involve substantial digitisation and mobile broadband at high speeds is a necessity.

The writer is Professor at IIIT Bangalore. Girish K and Badrinarayan M, alumni of IIIT Bangalore, provided research inputs